GMO EGGPLANT : A POTENTIAL THREAT TO THE LIVES OF INDIAN FARMERS AND CONSUMERS
Bt Brinjal – that’s what it is called. Brinjal (or eggplant for non-South Asians) is widely cultivated in India for the last 4000 years. India is, in fact, recognized as the centre of origin of Brinjal. The total production stands around 82 lakh metric tonnes (82 million kilo grams) per year. It is mainly grown in small plots as cash crop by farmers. There are many local varieties grown in India, in addition to improved varieties and hybrids.
However, Mahyco or Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited, decided that India needs more. In fact, Mahyco, the seed partner in India of Monsanto, asserts that India may need just one hybrid of Brinjal that will increase marketable yields, and which will result to higher income of the farmers. This is the promise of its new creation – Bt Brinjal. According to experts, Bt Brinjal is a transgenic brinjal created out of inserting a gene (Cry 1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into brinjal. This is said to give the brinjal plant resistance against insects like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit borer (helicoverpa armigera). It is reported that upon ingestion of the Bt toxin by the insect, there would be disruption of digestive processes, ultimately resulting in the death of the insect.
Bt Brinjal is the first transgenic food crop developed in India. Mahyco has sought the permission to do large scale field trials of its four varieties. No genetically-modified Brinjal has ever been released for an advanced stage of field trials in open conditions anywhere in the world. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India is posed to allow Mahyco, despite strong opposition from the farmers and environmental groups. If GEAC will allow Mahyco, India will be the first to have a large scale open trial for GM Brinjal, and the first GM food crop in the country.
The serious concerns raised by the farmers and environmental groups are health hazards which GM agricultural products have been known to cause. A study from the Philippines shows that people living next to Bt Corn fields had developed many mysterious symptoms. There are also studies which show that genes inserted into GM food survive digestive processes are transferred into the human body.
Bt Cotton which India has adopted has been found to have adverse health impacts. Farm and factory workers had allergies caused by Bt Cotton. Itching skin, eruptions on the body, swollen faces were also reported, correlated with levels of exposure to Bt Cotton.
Moreover, Bt Cotton was also found to be more vulnerable to sucking pests and more stress intolerant than non-Bt counterparts. Disease incidence on Bt Cotton is also seen to be higher than on non-Bt Cotton.
It is with this experience with the Bt Cotton that the question is raised – is Indian regulatory mechanism good enough to assess risks of GM in Indian conditions? Have there been enough studies done with the Bt Brinjal?
Indian farmers and environmentalists say not. There have been no independent tests conducted by the Ministry of Health. Most of the studies done were by the private industries. Meanwhile, the approval process is being pushed by agencies such as USAID.
Brinjal is a common vegetable, widely grown and directly consumed through cooking. The potential health and environmental hazards are extreme. This food crop should be accorded with utmost importance, care and thoroughness it deserves.
But the most important question needs to be asked – is there a real need for Bt Brinjal? The answer of the Indian farmers and activists – none. There are cheaper and safer methods to achieve higher food production which are being done already by farmers - Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which means the focus is on other methods of pest control and not on chemicals. There is also the NPM or the No Pesticide Management of crops. NPM is successfully practiced in India by cotton farmers. These are the ones which should be supported by the Indian government.
Food is essential. Safe food is imperative.
In solidarity with the Indian farmers and the activists who assert their right to safe and sustainable food production, we urge the GEAC to heed the wisdom of those who actually grow food for life and not of those who look at food as investments. Desist from giving the approval of large-scale field testing of Bt Brinjal. Instead, support the sustainable farming practices such as IPM and NPM, organic farming and biodynamic farming.
The Indian government should not take away food from the hands of those who grow it, only to give it to the business entities. Food is for people, not for profit.
Assert peoples’ right to food sovereignty.
Women and Environment Task Force
Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD)
June 11, 2006
Chiang Mai, Thailand